The Three Woes of Relationships

World Challenge Staff

God places great spiritual importance on our connection with other people, so how do we make sure those relationships are healthy? 

Anyone who works in the service industry is going to have ‘interesting’ stories about clients, but perhaps none more so than workers in the wedding business. A group recalled the worst weddings they’d had to oversee, one wedding planner saying, “I remember one couple who really wanted an over-the-top wedding that would be good enough to be featured in a popular luxury wedding magazine. They spared no expense. They became so obsessed with this that they were even choosing members of their bridal party based on their looks rather than their relationship with them.

“The bride had two brothers — one brother looked like a model for Hugo Boss, and her other brother who looked a little bit like Thor. Well, only the ‘Hugo Boss’ brother was selected to be a groomsman (things like this caused a lot of tension between family members, as well as fights between the couple).

“Interestingly enough, the couple divorced a week before their wedding was featured in that luxury bridal magazine.”

Another wedding planner recalled watching a bride discover her fiancé had cheated on her with her sister; the bride snatched up fork and stabbed the groom multiple times with it before she was pulled off. A caterer told a story about how the father of the bride and the father of the groom got into a fist-fight in the bathroom and had to be dragged apart by the venue’s staff. Weddings are rife with conflict perhaps because they are the entry point into merging two lives and, on a larger scale, two families into one. Nothing is a better recipe for selfishness, immaturity and anger to boil to the surface as egos clash.

Everyone wants marital bliss; but at the end of the day, no one really wants to surrender their plans, comfort or freedoms for another person.

This unfortunately ode winds through every relationship not just marriage, although it’s most evident in matrimony because the contact between people is greater and the stakes are higher. The universality of this struggle is evident in Paul’s command to believers, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:16-21, ESV).

I can’t think of a single relationship woe that wouldn’t be effectively solved if people, myself included, obeyed this passage of scripture. Each one of us contributes to the lack of human harmony, albeit in a vast variety of ways.

Now we could view this series of verses in Romans as a relational to-do list, but think for a moment about how impossible even the first sentence is to live out. “Live in harmony with one another.” How am I supposed to follow just this first command with the dating relationship gone sour, the marriage floundering in a sea of intimacy issues, the dysfunctional family dynamic during the holidays, the livid driver behind me on the highway, the obnoxious person in my Bible study group who perpetually overshares and overstays their welcome?

If we start at the top and try to work our way toward the center, we’ll become hopelessly overwhelmed. Luckily, Paul gives us a strong hint about the core of how to obey the entirety of this command in the second line: “Do not be haughty.” John Piper wrote on Desiring God, “He warns about pride’s attitude toward certain kinds of tasks and people. And he warns about pride’s attitude toward the self. …I think the clearest illustration of what he means is: Don’t think changing a diaper is beneath you. Don’t think running an errand or typing a report or sweeping the floor or doing tasks that our culture may call menial or simple or lowbrow—don’t think that you are above them.”

Pride is the father of all sins, and it brings out a full fruit basket of poison at every critical junction of our relationships with one another.

John Piper notes that there are three major forms of pride. Fair warning: since we all struggle with some variety of pride, we will find a fitting place for ourselves in at least one of these three categories. The first is preoccupied pride. This sort frequently appears very diffident and unassuming on the surface, the first to wave away praise. However, the internal landscape is swamped beneath thoughts of how we looked or sounded or even a constant voice of self-criticism and conviction of being pathetic. Mental and emotional activity swirls around ourselves, leaving little room to empathize with others or recognize their needs. Even if we do, it’s quickly drowned out by gloomy thoughts that no one will recognize how painful our sacrifice was or repay the favor down the road. If anyone dares to confirm our dour self-evaluation, they’re immediately spewed with vitriol, even if it’s only internally. How dare they think they’re not every bit as bad or worse than us?

The second sort of pride blazes bright and is probably the most recognizable. It’s a bold sort of self-infatuation where we feel perfectly confident in talents, relationships, social or professional skills. Everyone else obviously feels the same! If they don’t, it’s because they’re clearly insecure or have too many personal problems to be able to really appreciate us and everything we bring to the table. As John Piper put it, “He may or may not be outgoing, but he finds himself entertaining or intelligent or handsome or shrewd and enjoys preening himself, even if nobody is impressed.”

The third form of pride is perhaps the greatest chameleon. We go to great lengths to ensure others see our best sides and to be whatever they need us to be, so long as they praise us. Do they need an entertainer? We’ll be the life of the party! Do they need a counselor in their times of trouble? We’ll weep right alongside them and offer them the sagest advice. We are the best friend, the best spouse, the best coworker, and anyone who doubts it for even a second must be convinced otherwise, or else they will be silenced and discarded.

Why spend so much time focused on pride when we’re discussing a series of verses about good relationships? Well, pride is the most insidious of sins; the more we struggle with it, the less we recognize it. Better to recognize quickly that at every moment of every day, pride is quivering at the end of its leash, about to sink its teeth into us. All of us could sing right along with popular Taylor Swift song, “It's me. Hi. I'm the problem; it's me.”

Truly, the three forms of pride are the three great woes of every single relationship that humanity knows.

Our relational troubles aren’t something we can dismiss or put off dealing with until later. In the Truth & Grace podcast, John Bailey noted, “This is how important relationships are to God. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Otherwise, there’s going to be this enmity with God. If you sit back and go, ‘Man, I feel like God's far away…’, one good place to look at is ‘How am I in the relationships of the people who are around me?’”

The slow work of chiseling away pride starts with daily submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit then allowing ourselves to be convicted. When that pang strikes us over a conversation we had or sharp retort or careless dismissal of someone else, we then have the humbling duty of apologizing and making matters right with the other person.

Perhaps the business is easier if we take a more eternal view of others. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. …it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

We work and live alongside eternal beings with whom we may share heaven one day, so let’s start the business of learning to live graciously and at peace with one another.